Testosterone is the ultimate male hormone, responsible for not only physical power and endurance but also optimum cognitive function and emotional stability. Maintaining healthy testosterone production is how your preserve your male essence, and it’s become increasingly difficult in hectic modern life to do so. The combination of unhealthy diet, insufficient daily movement, insufficient explosive, high intensity exercise, patterns of too much exercise that are increasingly common in the hard-core CrossFit and endurance communities, emotional stressors such as toxic relationship dynamics, and also estrogenic influences in our environment (plastics, food, water supply) conspire to trash male testosterone levels today. While testosterone and other androgenic factors are known to decline gradually with age, the problem is accelerated decline driven by adverse lifestyle circumstances. It’s become so common to slow down and soften up from six-pack youth to spare tire middle age that we have come to view it as normal. As society becomes accustomed to using pharmaceuticals to address every complaint, millions have turned to testosterone replacement therapy. This is a band-aid approach that can work, but also can have detrimental long term consequences.
This article will reveal the profound effect that lifestyle modification can have on your testosterone levels in a short time, as I relate how I went from a testosterone reading below the normal&healthy range (equating with a clinical diagnosis of hypo) to a 99th percentile reading for my age group in only six months. This was largely due to eliminating overly stressful endurance exercise patterns by exercising at lower heart rates (and also extensive down time caused by appendectomy.) Enjoy this story and become inspired to minimize life stress factors and do everything else possible to optimize lifestyle practices in support of healthy male hormone function. Big changes can happen in a short time!
I returned to actual endurance training in early 2015 to prepare for professional Speedgolf competition, after ~20 years of doing minimal endurance training in favor of dominating young soccer, basketball and track athletes as a participatory coach. As I became more enthused about Speedgolf, I tried to limit my heart rate to 145 bpm or below for my training runs, knowing the importance of maintaining aerobic intensity and minimizing anaerobic stimulation doing routine workouts. However, the 145 bpm number I chose was much to high for a 50-year-old; it was based on what I now believe is a flawed calculation of aerobic maximum heart rate based on estimated maximum heart rate. Instead, I recommend that endurance enthusiasts of all levels train according to Dr. Phil Maffetone’s “180 minus age” formula, where you calculate your aerobic maximum heart rate to be 180 minus age in beats per minute. Maffetone is the author of the Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing and legendary endurance coach. His time-tested formula ensures that a workout is minimally stressful and emphasizes fat burning, with minimal stimulation of glucose burning and stress hormone production.
I learned the hard way after six months of greatly increased training volume that even a little too high of a heart rate can be highly destructive. By going out for golf rounds and training runs with heart rate in 140s, I was stimulating a bit too much stress hormone production day after day. I was ill prepared for both the huge increase in training volume along with a heart rate that was too elevated. This was revealed by a testosterone test in April, 2015, in the midst of my chronic training patterns. My reading was 686 serum testosterone and 6.8 free testosterone. Free T is the bioavailable form that is circulating and acting upon target organs to deliver the desired beneficial effects. In some cases, a subject can deliver a high reading for serum testosterone, but have inferior free testosterone due to elevated levels of sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG.) This agent binds with most of your serum testosterone, leaving only a small fraction of free T to go to work and activate cell receptors in target organs (For example, women have twice the level of SHBG as men, ensuring they are not over-exposed to testosterone.) This was what was happening with me, likely because of chronic overproduction of stress hormones messing up healthy hormonal signaling. 686 is very good for a 50-year-old, but the 6.8 drew a low red flag as clinically hypotestosteronemia! Not cool man!
Besides feeling tired and delivering a low T blood test, I blame this chronic exercise period as a key contributor to an alarming health setback that occurred in June of 2015. On the heels of two high intensity sprint workouts over a span of five days, in 100-degree summer heat, I had to have emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix. Complications followed, with an ensuring 3 months of gross hematuria (peeing blood) that required three exploratory surgeries on my kidneys. Conventional thinking is that appendicitis is a random occurrence, but I blame these exhausting and dehydrating workouts on landing me in the hospital.
Life gives you rest periods if you refuse to take them yourself. It took me weeks of buildup from short walks, to longer walks, to jog/walks and finally to resumption of light jogging. This time around, I decided to adhere to the 180-age MAF formula, and never exceed 130 beats per minute during my sessions (180 minus age 50 is 130 bpm). This meant doing a lot of walking during Speedgolf rounds, because stopping to swing the club raises your heart rate from jogging level!
For a lifelong competitive athlete, it’s a huge adjustment in mindset to maintain such a frustratingly slow pace – walking up hills and so forth. After months of devoted effort and limiting heart rate however, my energy and general health improved greatly, as did my fitness. I filmed this video because I was particularly pleased to notice running along at a decent pace with a heart rate of only 123!
While focused, goal-oriented, hard driving athletes have trouble slowing down the pace of their workouts, especially to the extremely low intensity that 180-age dictates, it’s been proven to pay off with continued improvement and less risk of burnout and breakdown. In my case, the benefits of my aerobic base building were validated not only by steady improvement on the trails, but in my blood values.
In October, I delivered testosterone blood test values of 1,013 serum and 14.7 free testosterone. Delivering a ~1,000 serum level is at the top end of the range even for a young man, and the 14.7 free reading–more than double my April reading of 6.8–was at the top of the normal range. For reference, during my professional triathlon career I ranged from 200-300 on serum testosterone tests. Even during my supposed peak hormonal years of my 20s, the extreme training and transcontinental travel suppressed my testosterone and in turn elevated stress hormones like cortisol that antagonize testosterone.
This chart showing means and percentiles for serum testosterone by age group:
Bottom line: SLOWING DOWN will help you improve as an endurance athlete, protect against overtraining and burnout, and optimize your hormones so you experience an anti-aging effect instead of accelerated aging that comes from chronic cardio training. When you integrate brief, high-intensity resistance training and sprinting, you can experience the opposite effect of chronic exercise: a spike in testosterone and human growth hormone in response to the appropriate–hormetic–stress of properly conducted high intensity workouts. These topics are some of the central elements of the Primal Endurance training philosophy.